“An exotic species in an unnatural habitat” - So ran a headline in a recent Times Educational Supplement. The same article commented that the large number of politicians recently visiting state schools must imply that education is going to be a priority issue at the forthcoming election. Slightly worrying for the Conservatives, therefore, that the same edition ran an article suggesting that the Party’s interest in Scandinavian education systems is misguided.
More worrying still, is an article in this week’s edition, from a series on teaching around the world, which claims that:
“The Swedish education system is faltering… The performance of its 15-year-olds has slipped steadily in international comparisons, its measures of social mobility and equity have declined, and it now lags behind other Nordic countries, having led them for decades… What we observe is a decline, especially in science and mathematics… There is an increasing variation between schools”,
and a widening gap between students with educated parents and those whose parents are not so highly educated.
Certainly the Swedish and Finnish education models have much to be commended: standards are high (even though children only start school at seven) and teaching as a profession in Finland is highly respected. They also appear to have the right balance between “centralised steering and local implementation”.
There are, however, many significant differences between the systems of Scandinavia and England: there are no private schools in Finland and very few in Sweden, they are both much more egalitarian societies by tradition (it is the custom for all teachers to be called by their Christian names and to dress casually) and it is usual for all children to attend their nearest local school. The state is also prepared to properly fund important initiatives, so classes are relatively small and in Finland since the 1940s, in an attempt to improve the nation’s health, all youngsters have been provided with a free nutritious meal at lunchtime. How different to our experience, where government meddling in school food has actually led to a drop in the uptake of school lunches.